Tyson Foods is among a growing number of companies using social media to identify consumer trends.

Chicken nuggets are a hot topic in the social-media community of Tyson Foods Inc., Springdale, Ark. These conversations are important to the company, and the task of monitoring the online chicken-nugget chatter (and providing support for Tyson’s other business units) falls to Jack Pate, director of social media at Tyson Foods, and the company’s social-media team.

Pate joined Tyson in 2002 in the company’s corporate communications department following a career in newspaper journalism. Family obligations took him to Las Vegas, where he worked in corporate communications for a casino company. He learned a lot about crisis management (which would come in handy later) and public relations. Pate says he noticed that a lot of casino guests were using social media to communicate with the casino, but the casino wasn’t listening. Pate got each company set up for monitoring and responding on Twitter.

He rejoined Tyson’s corporate-communications team in 2010 – and the “pink slime” controversy erupted not long after he arrived.

“For the first time, senior leadership saw social media as less of a novelty, and more of a threat,” he says. “We built our new social-media team under the umbrella of corporate affairs, which houses public relations, community relations, charitable giving and government relations.”

Tyson’s social-media team was founded as a crisis-monitoring-and-response team. But as different business units wanted to get started in social media, the need for the social media team’s expertise grew.

“We formed alliances with legal, public relations, compliance, human resources, corporate security, investor relations and marketing that were the beginnings of a social-media governance committee that meets regularly,” Pate says.

Currently, the social-media team consists of Ed Nicholson, senior director of CSR, community relations and social media; Pate; and three full-time online community managers – Kyle Gibson, Susan Beebe and Matt Boring. Boring is the team’s newest member, and he is tasked with a new role shared with Tyson’s Food Service Division to develop a B2B presence.

Team-member roles are based on individual skill sets. “In social media, part of it is being really good at creating content and sort of flying by the seat of your pants,” Pate says. “But on the other side of that coin, you also have to be committed to process and data. We have people on our team who are good at both of those things.”

Team members must have an established ability to build a community or to influence a community. Pate says there are now people specifically trained in social media – college grads can earn degrees in social-media communication. But skills gained in other professions translate easily to social media, he adds.

“Radio, I think, is a perfect example of a skill-set that works really well in social because a DJ really plays the role of a community manager,” Pate says. “They’re playing music...but they’re also delivering promotional messaging. However, they do it in a way that creates a persona and a personality that listeners identify with.”

Growing social

Tyson launched its social-media presence in 2008 on Twitter. The company’s feed initially was created around hunger relief, and a large number of its current followers are associated with hunger relief. Social media enables Tyson to amplify the company’s message about the problem of hunger in the United States and deliver education around hunger relief initiatives.

Tyson Foods' social media initiatives started on Twitter as platform for the company's hunger relief efforts.

“Our theme is ‘No Hunger’, which is created around educating people that hunger is real in every community,” Pate says.

Social media also helps Tyson spread its message about sustainability – and pretty much every aspect of Tyson’s business, Pate adds.

“It has since expanded to include all corporate communication and information,” Pate says. “So, we have a whole lot of different stakeholders for that account now – it’s the investor community, it’s foodies, it’s consumers. It’s people who live in our plant communities, as well.”

Tyson doesn’t sell products online, so it has a different mission when it comes to building an online community. Its social-media team tries to take the company’s existing message and craft it for social media, Pate says. Online videos provide another avenue to connect with consumers. In-house personnel often create Tyson’s outreach videos, but if a certain look or feel is needed the work is outsourced.

“Video is redefining differences between traditional outreach and social outreach.” Pate says. “Videos need to be shorter, more entertaining and more engaging than traditional methods of outreach.”

The team acts as a policing function by monitoring Tyson’s social-media platforms for negative feedback. Tyson’s community-relations team also monitors and responds to consumer issues. The social-media team provides crisis management support. Pate speaks from experience when he says a crisis situation requires a commitment of all resources.

“We provide a lot of monitoring; provide context around a crisis,” he says. “That’s one very valuable dimension we can provide for the PR team. We work with our PR team to craft messaging for social. So, for Twitter, it has to be short, obviously. On Facebook, it has to be personable. You have to sound like a real person when you’re talking to them – you don’t want to cut-and-paste the typical boiler plate.”

Worth Sparkman, a Tyson spokesman, had high praise for the social- media team. “They provide me and everyone on our team with absolutely everything we need – quickly,” he says.

The data mine

Tyson Foods is among a growing number of companies using data-mining platforms to identify trends and make decisions about the direction of the business. The company developed a Social Media Command Center that features proprietary tools used to track various issues, Pate says.

“That’s how we mine data, and these are available on big screens that are available to anyone on our team,” he says. “We also do ad-hoc reporting for various stakeholders within the company. If PR has a particular issue they need tracked, we’ll do that for them. We’ll work with any group that needs a specific issue monitored.”

Pate says it wasn’t too difficult to get buy-in from company executives since most of them are savvy about social media because of personal usage.

“Making the business case can be a little challenging. It begs the question: ‘Why would anyone be a fan of a chicken nugget page?’ But it all goes back to that idea that you’re not there necessarily to be a fan of a nugget, but you’re there to be part of a community of people who share the same values and interests,” Pate concludes.